Monday, January 5, 2015

Napa Vintner and Environmental Leader Volker Eisele Dies: A Remembrance

It was a February day in 2011 when I headed up the twisty roads to Chiles Valley with a friend to visit Volker Eisele Family Estate, the winery founded by the German born Volker Eisele and run with his family.

I was in the process of learning more about organically grown wines at the high end of the market (having made my acquaintance with most of the Mendo folk), and had been to visit the Napa Valley Vintners where the marketing and communications person directed me to connect with Volker, who was then the head of Napa Green, the eco-arm of the valley's marketing programs. Refreshingly candid, he made fun of green marketing while also being a dyed in the wool environmentalist, land protector, and organic wine grape grower and producer for more than 40 years.

Volker spent an hour touring us around the vineyards, showing us the birds along his creek, the abundant wildlife and woods (only 60 acres of the 400 acre property are cultivated), how the elevation of Chiles Valley led to temperatures and climate that was closer to that of Bordeaux.

Volker's name was familiar to me from reading the book Napa by James Conaway. In it, Conaway describes the fight to save Napa Valley from development by creating the Agricultural Preserve in 1968. Jack Davies (of Schramsberg) is credited with playing a key role in developing the preserve and Volker with a major role in getting it passed through a political alliance with strange bedfellows (including Beckstoffer). They were both students of the formidable environmental land preserver/battler Dorothy Erskine, who started the Greenbelt Alliance, among many initiatives. (Sadly, her name is never mentioned in Napa Valley Vintners' accounts of Napa's Ag Preserve and Napa's green history.)

My father had been roommates with Jack Davies, when the two were at Harvard Business School. He brought me up to visit Jack once, when he was here on a business trip from the East Coast in 1985. (It was the only time the two men connected after graduate school.) When I later read Conaway's book, I was astounded that it centered on Jack Davies and it certainly made the story even more compelling.

In 2010, my parents died. Jack Davies had already died. Volker represented a symbolic link to my past and to my future, as I had by then decided to start writing about organically grown wines (starting this blog earlier) and diving into the Napa producers. He was the start of understanding organic wine grape growing in Napa, for me.

Eisele was beyond caring about what the industry thought of him, in most ways. Yes, his wines had gotten some very nice scores from Robert Parker - one of the few essentials for wine marketing in his generation. And yes, I liked the wines very much - very, very much. I still think they represent one of the great unsung wines of the region. (They outdid the Phelps' Insignia in a Wine & Spirits tasting later on, a fact which I noted in a blog post at the time).

He spoke words of truth, not truthiness like most vintners. He spent time, unhurried time, with my friend and me. He gave us his attention. He answered our questions. He visited with us. He didn't shower us with wine club offers and pushy marketing deals. He was the very opposite of this.

He could also be quite the curmudgeon, as I had later occasion to witness. His social skills swung both ways. He could be biting, ascorbic, insulting - even to his allies. He was to me. But he was also very generous and open. I did two interviews with him on the phone (recorded) in July-August 2013, before he was leaving on a trip to Germany where he attended a special new production of Wagner's opera The Ring at Bayreuth. He laid out the entire legislative history of Napa's land protection measures as well as his thoughts on winemaking (it's about the grapes and the land, not the winemaker), wine grape growing (easy in Napa), organic farming (important) and the industry's "green" marketing practices (organic wannabe's).

In the end, his contributions cannot be measured. He was, as the Press Democrat article says, a lion of land protection. He came from abroad. He knew what it meant once the land was gone. He saw the riches here. He protected them. He made great wine. I know many who will be toasting him. In my mind's eye, vintners should line Highway 29 and all the roads of Napa where vineyards exist, and hold a glass high to the guy who made it possible for them to be growing grapes instead of lawns, and trading in wine futures, instead of condo developments.

Just as the power of Wagner's heroes and heroines is rooted in the water and land, Eisele's was, too. In this way, his legacy will never be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. The funeral will be held Tuesday morning at 10 am in St. Helena. See the Napa Valley Register for details.